'We Need a National Conference' - New African, Jan 2001
Dr Abass Bundu, former executive secretary of Ecowas and leader of the Progressive Peoples Party (PPP) of Sierra Leone, tells our guest sub-editor, Ibrahim Seaga Shaw.
New African: The recently launched Grand Alliance of opposition parties is said to be gathering momentum in and outside Sierra Leone. As a member of this movement, what is the rational behind its formation and what do you hope to achieve?
Abass Bundu: No one needs convincing any more that in the best interest of our country, we have to respond to the yearning desire of the common man in Sierra Leone who wants to see all of our parties come together. This is what the Grand Alliance (GA) has sought to do. The goal is to have a single party co-ordinating all our efforts so that we can face the ruling party squarely on a level playing field and let the people decide. That is the essence of democracy. I believe we shall succeed. Our target is the SUP as a party and not our southern brothers and sisters. Let nobody interpret what we set out to do as a contest between North v South or between Temne v Mende. We must not section-- alise, regionalise or tribalise what we are seeking to do. We are simply seeking to establish in a very genuine fashion a democratic polity in our society. So our target is the SUP party which has misruled the country, and which no longer deserves the trust of the electorate.
NA: Parliament recently voted overwhelmingly for the extension of the state of emergency regulations for another six months, barely a week after stoutly opposing the bill, thus fuelling speculation of "palm-greasing" As an expert in international law, what do you think are the legal and political implications of this, and how would it impact on the Grand Alliance as a united front?
Bundu: Well, I think MPs were simply reflecting the decisions of their various parties. The state of emergency's prolongation has a direct legal implication. Under the 1991 constitution, parliament will stand dissolved by the end of its fifth year in existence. That power is not even vested in the president. It is an automatic operation of the constitution. The only way parliament can stay on is if there is a state of emergency. So by extending the emergency regulations for another six months, one can envisage the possibility of parliament living a life beyond its constitutional term of five years. It would be legal but that is the only way it can do that; otherwise, it has to be dissolved and fresh elections held. The same goes for the president. His term too will come to an end and the only way, again under the constitution, that he can prolong his presidency is through the state of emergency. So now you can see clearly why Alhaji Tejan Kabbah has maintained the state of emergency since he declared it in March 1998.
NA: There are fears about holding the next elections as planned, because of the security situation, and people are therefore calling for the setting up of an interim government to complete the peace process and organise elections when the present government's term ends in February. What is your opinion on this?
Bundu: I'm happy with the question - what is my opinion - because what I'm about to say is exactly my opinion and not that of the Grand Alliance (GA). I want that to be clearly understood because I don't want to cross swords with my colleagues in the GA.
I think it's extremely difficult to hold elections on the due date. There are certain conditions attached to the holding of elections, such as the registration of voters. That has not yet been done. I don't see how that can be achieved in the present climate. Maybe it's possible to do it in the Western, Southern and parts of the Eastern Provinces; but certainly not in the Northern Province, which is still under rebel occupation. That is a major obstacle that we must overcome.
The second is that we must respect the principle of democracy, which insists that every vote counts. It is in the nature of democracy, you cannot weight one man's vote more than the other. If that is so, it is wrong to hold elections now simply because it's easier to have election results in areas not under rebel occupation than areas under rebel occupation. Because the net result of this is to disenfranchise those people in those constituencies still under rebel control.
Now I would very much have liked to see the government proceed in prolonging the life of parliament and the presidency not by way of the state of emergency, which is an extraordinary measure. What people should know is that a state of emergency is not a normal way in proceeding in governance. It is an extraordinary event, and extraordinary events make bad precedent.
It would have been better to convene a Bintumani type national conference where people put their partisan interest aside and look at the bigger picture - the national interest -- and deliberate for days if necessary. At the end of the day, we would have produced a set of ground rules to govern our country. But to go by way of the state of emergency is something I don't agree with. It sets a very bad precedent and smacks of undemocratic behaviour.
So my thesis is this: We need a national conference (NC). Let the NC determine whether we need a transitional administration. If the answer is yes, it will set it up. It will be the collective consensus of the nation, such as we had in 1996 when the whole nation galvanised and told the NPRC junta: "Your days are numbered, we want elections come what may." The same thing should be done.
And believe me it's going to help. You see the culture of revenge that has gripped our nation would begin to give way if we are to dialogue. Let us begin a process that would get out of our minds any feeling of revenge.
Now we must allow Tejan Kabbah's reign to run its course, which is a five-year period. But at the end of his term, I don't think it would be the decision solely of the SUPP government to determine what form of government we must have. The state of emergency must go and the NC held under UN supervision.
NA: The Lome Peace Accord suffered a series of setbacks recently, largely caused by the unfortunate events of May last year, and the government doesn't seem to be clear whether to continue with it or pursue the military alternative. What do you make of this?
Bundu: In my opinion I think negotiations have not failed. A political solution has not failed. Any time a negotiated settlement of a conflict encounters problems, the fault lies not in the settlement itself but rather in the intentions of the parties. They have to be genuine enough to convey in very sincere terms what they want to see happen. You cannot be negotiating with another party while at the same time you are harbouring evil plans against him - it's not going to work!
So let's be quite clear: Whether it's the Abidjan Peace Accord, the Conakry Peace Accord or the Lome Peace Accord, the fault lies not with the accords but with the sincerity of the parties who signed them, be they government or rebel.
You see peace is a process. And that process has a lot of ingredients. We've just been dealing with one - democracy and democratic elections. How genuine can we make the next elections be? If we leave room for disputations, we might end up going back to square one. So for lasting peace to be achieved, the democracy aspect of the equation as well as the question of trust must be addressed.
It doesn't mean that we must pander to the whim and caprice of the rebels. I would not accept the pampering of the rebels to the extent that they are brought into government purely because of the power of the gun. That is again setting a bad and dangerous precedent. They must be encouraged that if they seek political power, that power is available only through the ballot box and not the barrel of the gun. And there is no better place to talk to the rebels than at a national conference.
We've always advocated a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Sierra Leone. This has made some people in government to brand us as junta or rebel collaborators. But that has not deflected me in any way as I still believe that negotiations are the best way forward.
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